I’m a Midwesterner. I should’ve known when I saw the tureen of soup on the porch of my new house in Milwaukee that it was an offering of kindness. But we’d recently moved back to Wisconsin, I’d just had my second child, and things weren’t going well. My daughter Olivia called her new brother “that baby” and begged us to return Tim to the hospital. We were just days into our larger family, and already we were dysfunctional.
The soup came with a note congratulating us on our new arrival. It was signed by the parents of one of the kids at Olivia’s daycare. I should have felt gratitude, should have recognized the meal as a neighborly tradition, but I was so tired that the grey matter of my brain had been replaced with Styrofoam peanuts. I was insulted. Wounded, even. Did these people think I was a bad provider? Did they assume I wouldn’t feed my children? That I’d just forget? Had they conspired with all the other daycare parents? Were they whispering about us? I carried the soup into my kitchen, indignant and defensive, only to realize when I opened the refrigerator and saw a bottle of relish and a wilted bag of lettuce that they were right. My cabinets were empty.
There were more meals after that. Lasagnas, casseroles, bowls of fruit, a baguette with a teething ring wrapped around it, bottles of wine. I recoiled at my initial embarrassment and humbly received the offerings from neighbors, even some we hadn’t yet met, with genuine appreciation. This was why we’d moved back after all, to raise our kids in a place with a sense of community.
Eventually I began to pay it forward and started dropping off food for my friends when they had new babies, surgeries, or lost a family member. I’m not a great cook, so my early offerings featured hard potatoes, crunchy noodles and undercooked chicken. I’ve refined my recipes to a few staples that won’t poison anyone, like Italian wedding soup and white bean chili. The longer we lived in Milwaukee, the more friends I made, and the more casserole dishes I accumulated with our last name written in Sharpie on crusted old tape on the bottoms.
A year ago we moved to Madison, and all those dishes sit in our new cabinets. It’s hard to start over in a place where you feel you don’t yet matter. I’ve made some friends, but sometimes I wonder if Madison will ever feel like home the way Milwaukee did.
Recently I had to undergo a minor surgery on the same day my daughter had her wisdom teeth pulled. When we returned to the house, I found that a new friend had left a bag with baked pasta and popsicles waiting by my back door. The next day, another friend delivered a pot of butternut squash soup and a loaf of bread. This time I was overcome with raw gratitude, and not just because I was hungry and wouldn’t have to worry about dinner. I saw the meals as more than a gesture: they were signs that Madison was becoming our home.